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This Week in Jewish Farming: Hankering for heirlooms

(Cara Paiuk)

Heirloom tomatoes’ elusiveness adds to their appeal. (Cara Paiuk)

There are a handful of foods that are inseparable from the rise of the locavore movement. Kale is an obvious one. A decade ago, this cold-hardy, nutrient-dense crucifer was scarcely available outside farmers markets and health food stores. Today, it’s everywhere.

Or grass-fed beef. For decades, no one questioned the fact that most American beef cattle were fattened on corn and soy. Now, buying beef raised on pasture is a mark of conscientious eating — along with discerning taste, moral superiority and vulnerability to savvy marketing.

And then there’s the heirloom tomato. Unless you’re really old or were raised by green-thumbed hippies, most Americans know tomatoes as those basically tasteless, uniform red orbs stacked in perfect soldierly columns on faux-wooden tables in the produce section. This was the tomato that American industry valued — unvarying, shelf stable and attractive even after a long ride in the back of a tractor-trailer.

Thankfully, we’ve all gotten a little savvier. Heirloom tomatoes — defined as genetically stable, older varieties passed down over generations, as opposed tomatoes produced by intensive plant breeding or hybridization — are none of the things typical supermarket tomatoes are. They wound easily. They don’t ship well. They vary dramatically in size and shape. In fact, they often don’t look very appealing at all, their appearance marred by welts, creases and protrusions that look like the vegetable version of neurofibromatosis.

What they do have is something you’d think all those supermarket sellers would care about: taste. And their elusiveness is part of the appeal. In most of the country, they are only available for a few weeks in late summer. But when they do appear, people tend to lose their heads a little.

Until mid-July, I was doing a modestly respectable business each week at the farmers market. Which was fine. My main business has been and will remain the CSA, in which members purchase a share of the farm’s produce in advance and get those lovely boxes delivered each week.

But my take from the market exploded the first time I showed up with significant quantities of tomatoes. Customers would buy a half-pint of sungolds (not an heirloom tomato, for the record) then circle back to the stand again and buy a second one. People were buying tiny little things I barely thought worthy of selling. I was constantly restocking the quaint wicker basket holding the heirlooms.

Then the wholesale orders began. After one particularly voluminous harvest last week, I placed a call to a nearby food co-op, one of just a handful in the entire state. They took 50 pounds of heirlooms off me along with 18 containers of sungolds. Three days later they called asking for more.

This is, in a word, awesome. But it also makes me marvel at the peculiarities of consumer taste. At their current pre-August price, a single enormous Brandywine tomato can cost six bucks. For one tomato! Customers have balked at half that much for a beautiful Caraflex cabbage that goes a lot further, meal-wise and nutrient-wise. Watermelons, which also taste spectacular and have nowhere near the harvest window that tomatoes do, command only a fraction of the price per pound.

But there’s something about a tomato. And thank God for it.

Veteran JTA journalist Ben Harris is chronicling his new life as a Connecticut farmer. Read more of his weekly dispatches here.

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From the annals of Jewish farming: In 1986, a seasonal shortage of Israeli-grown tomatoes prompted a government dispute that was resolved by a decision not to import 100 tons of tomatoes from Spain.

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